We all sometimes think the truth is lying
“Just because of the sanitizing coverage that’s in the media doesn’t mean the facts aren’t out there.”
“The media knows what sells — conflict and division.”
The president said those things.
Not Donald Trump.
Ol’ Slick Willy had little love for the press. He felt unfairly maligned throughout his presidency, especially for — but not only for — coverage of his womanizing that led to his impeachment.
Later, when Hillary Clinton ran for president against Barack Obama, Bill felt the press gave Obama too much love while writing unfairly critical pieces about his wife. Bill said the press was fairer when he first ran in 1992.
He never went so far as to call us the enemy of the people or brand entire outlets “fake news,” but Bill Clinton regularly accused the press of bias, of misreporting facts, of chasing scandal to sell papers instead of chasing the truth.
We all think the truth is lying when it’s working against us.
Case in point: The Hill recently released a poll showing that, while 63% of Republicans feel press coverage of Trump’s impeachment proceedings is biased, just 28% of Democrats think that (see the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/vhmozeg).
But Democrats saw something different 20 years ago, during Clinton’s impeachment trial. According to a Gallup Poll at that time, 48% of Democrats said then that the press was biased against Clinton, compared to 25% who said the press was biased for Clinton (see that full story here: https://tinyurl.com/rjuoack).
Now, the two polls are not an apples-to-apples comparison, because they asked slightly different questions at different stages of the two impeachment proceedings (interestingly, in the 1999 poll, about the same share of Democrats and Republicans said the press acted responsibly in the impeachment coverage, despite their different perceptions of bias).
And I don’t put a lot of stock in polls to begin with.
But those are the best numbers we have, and they do align with my observations over 14 years in this business.
People say we’re biased when we report bad news about their people, and “finally unbiased” when we report good news.
President Trump is among the most egregious example. The press is all fake news when they do their jobs and report on investigations into his behavior. But, on Thursday, he was all too happy to proudly display newspapers at the National Prayer Breakfast when reporters did their job and reported that the Senate had acquitted him (see the story: https://tinyurl.com/u96luex).
The screaming “TRUMP IMPEACHED” headline and screaming “TRUMP ACQUITTED” headline were both motivated by the same things: the truth, bringing the news of the day to the people, and recording history as it happens.
The press doesn’t change. Readers’ perceptions change based on their feelings toward the subject being covered (or whether or not they are the subject being covered).
Back in 2016, Politico Magazine media critic Jack Shafer did a marvelous job dissecting that truth in response to Trump supporters who said Trump was getting harsher treatment than Bill Clinton did in the 90s.
Shafer: “The Podesta emails? Pile-on. The Snowden files? Pile-on. Ebola? Pile-on. The Sony hack? Pile-on. The Clinton emails? Pile-on. The Clinton Foundation? Pile-on. The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables? Pile-on. The legal chicanery of the Trump Foundation? A one-man pile-on by David Fahrenthold! To run for president is almost to beg the press to Pile-on. Just ask Mitt ’47 Percent’ Romney or Barack ‘Rev. Wright’ Obama or any other presidential candidate over the past 50 years. It goes with the territory.”
(Read Shafer’s full essay here: https://tinyurl.com/skb7qyh).
The idea of a “liberal mainstream media” has been a Republican talking point since Richard Nixon’s famous “last press conference” in 1962 (https://vimeo.com/225273702) and Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” attack in 1970 (https://tinyurl.com/ya96oyqv) (my personal favorite insult, by the way; if you’re going to attack us, do it with some class).
So it isn’t surprising that 63% of Republicans said the press was biased for Clinton in 1999 and 63% of Republicans said the press is biased against Trump this year.
But dig into the numbers and you find more gray than black-and-white.
Back in 1999, 21% of Republicans said the press was biased against Clinton, and 20% of Republicans said the press was biased in favor of Trump this year.
American news consumers cover a spectrum of ideology a mile wide. Every time a reader tells me I should have written a headline differently to make him or her happy, I know their rewrite would tick off 20 or 30 others. People are going to call me names either way.
So we journalists strive for the unchanging truth, shooting straight down the middle, and let perceptions change around us.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.